Op-Ed by Jackson Pincus
I woke up, around 9:30 maybe. Checked my phone, as I always do in the morning. Slowly, groggily, got myself out of bed, and got ready for the day. “I’m not nearly as apprehensive as I figured I would be,” I thought. “This doesn’t seem right.” Adi looked over at me.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I responded.
And with that, we grabbed backpacks and walked to the train station.
An hour and a half on the train. Not too bad. A slow ride, but beautiful scenery. I gazed out the window, lost in- well, nothing, really. I watched small towns and the Polish countryside roll past. Listened to music. Occasionally, Adi and I glanced at each other, lost in our own worlds. An hour and a half later, we arrived in the town of Oświęcim, Poland. We got off the train. Looked at each other. “Deep breaths,” I told myself. In the end, I would speak very few words until we arrived back in Krakow at nearly 7:30 PM. I checked the map. “That way,” I said, pointing down an unassuming road. We walked. Passed under a bridge. I checked the map again. Climbed up a hill to reach the bridge we’d just walked under. “This is it. Just at the end of this road. But wait one second.” I stopped, unzipped my backpack, and fished for the small gray, leather kippah I had been given by a friend. In preparation for what I was about to do, I clipped it into my hair. “All set,” I said. We walked further. Nearly at the end of the road now. Then I saw it, through a small grove of trees glistening green in the Polish sun. We arrived. I stood on the railroad tracks. Looked up, unable to move. I glanced at Adi. Looked back at what I’d come here to see. Took a deep breath. And walked through the main gate to the Birkenau Death Camp.
“Do something for me?” I asked Adi. “I need you to take this photo for me.” And like thousands of other young Jews for years before me, I unfolded the flag of the State of Israel, and draped it over my shoulders. Wrapped it around me like a blanket, as if to protect myself from the place in which I stood. On the railroad tracks, unable to move, I took another deep breath. “Okay,” I whispered to Adi, my voice somehow lost. “Let’s walk.” And so we walked. Down the row of still-standing prisoner barracks where thousands of Jews were forced like animals to slaughter. Peering in to the few that had signs explaining the conditions inside, dodging tour groups with guides in all different languages. We traced the perimeter with our feet. What felt like hours dragged by as I trudged each and every step of the perimeter road, barely taking my feet off the ground. I looked up, at the uncountable rows of brick chimneys- all that is left of most wooden barracks. Destroyed. Just ruins. “How DARE you?” I thought to myself, angrily. “How DARE you do this to us, and try to hide it? Take responsibility for your crimes.”
We kept walking. Picked a row, and walked down what turned out to have been a major crossroad at the camp. Kept walking, across the railroad tracks, following signs to the edges. Into the woods, briefly. Back out, in front of us the showers. Where my people were humiliated, stripped of everything of value they owned, heads shaved, clothing replaced with striped prisoner uniforms and tattooed numbers on their forearms. We kept walking, back into the woods. Made it to the back of Birkenau. Saw the ruins of gas chambers and crematoria, more reminders that this crime was not meant to ever be found out. Destroyed via dynamite by retreating Nazi forces who thought they could get away with the murder of 6,000,000 Jews. I climbed the stone steps to the International Memorial for the Victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walked along its obsidian-black form, scanning the dozens of remembrance plaques in all different languages- a symbol for ALL, a reminder of what happened here. I looked back at Adi. “Let’s go,” I said, “There’s one more place we have to make it to before our train.”
We walked the same path as before, cutting through the middle of the camp. Made it to the dirt road into which the railroad tracks are still buried. Walked down the middle, stepping on each and every wooden railroad tie. Made it back to the gate. I looked up, once more. Lowered my gaze to the entry and exit space in the gate, and walked through. I did not look back.
We sprinted most of the mile distance. Got our tickets for 4:00 PM. Over lunch while waiting the 45 minutes to enter was the most I’d spoken all day. “Just so you know- again- I’m not going to make it through this without falling apart at least once.” Adi nodded, knowingly.
4:00 came. We got in line. More deep breaths. Go through security. Exit security. I looked up, seeing the sign pointing us where to go. Walked down a short gravel path, and stopped. Looked up. “Arbeit Macht Frei.” “Work Makes You Free.” I didn’t say them out loud, but the words stuck in my throat as I tried to swallow. Another deep breath. Looked straight ahead. Walked through the gate, and into Auschwitz I. The original of the three. The place everyone’s mind goes to when you say “concentration camp.” I took a deep breath, and did a 360 degree turn to get my bearings. I set off not following the signs. I had only 45 minutes, and there were two things I came here to see. I walked aimlessly, not knowing where to look. I turned a corner. A mound of earth with a brick chimney and short concrete foundation came into view. I knew it was one of the places I had been searching for in this Hell on Earth. I walked towards the entrance. Took another deep breath. Looked behind me- no Adi. So I walked back around the corner, to find him reading the informational sign. I waited, patiently. He looked up, I nodded my head towards the door, softly. He understood. We walked back up to the entrance. I took another deep breath. And I entered the gas chamber.
“You are entering a place where the Nazis murdered thousands of people. Please stay silent,” the sign said. I looked around the dimly lit concrete entry. Looked through the door to my right. Moved into the next room. Into the chamber itself. I stared, motionless. My eyes went in and out of focus. I forced myself to move to the next room. It took a few seconds to register: two ovens, with equipment. Ready to burn the bodies of those murdered by gas in the room I’d just walked through. I stared. Leaned against the doorframe for support. Lost focus. Blinked. Regained focus. Walked back into the gas chamber. Heard, clear as day, the sounds of hundreds of people not knowing why their friends and family were suddenly dropping dead around them. Not knowing, because they had been promised it was just a cleansing shower to avoid infections in the camp. Not knowing, until they too couldn’t breathe. Not knowing, until they too fell to the floor, and never stood up again. I went back to the crematorium. I felt people shuffle past me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Adi’s white t-shirt move towards the exit. I shuffled past him, head down, back out into the Polish sun. I kept my head down. Felt for the concrete foundation of the building. Hoisted myself up to where I could sit, with my feet dangling a few inches above the ground. I sat for less than 30 seconds. Pulled my legs up onto the foundation. Put my head on my knees, arms over my head. And I cried. For 1,100,000 Jews murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone. For 500,000 others murdered there. For 6,000,000 people who would never seen children, adulthood, or grandchildren. For entire families wiped out in less than a minute by gas, gunfire, and other inhuman acts. For what seemed like hours, I sat there. Felt Adi’s hand on my shoulder. Stayed motionless, save for the tears. “Doing okay?” he asked. I could muster nothing but the slightest shake of my head to indicate “No.” More time went by. Adi’s hand again. “Should we move on?” “Probably,” I responded, my voice muffled through my arm, my knee, and my still-occasional sobs. I put my knees down, keeping my head aimed towards the ground. Pulled down my sleeves, and tried to dry my tear-stained face. I put my sunglasses back on, pulled myself off the ledge, and kept walking. I did not look back.
I searched in vain for something I knew to exist.
“What are you looking for?” Adi asked, as I walked purposefully between buildings, checking the exhibition name on every building with an open door.
“Shoes,” I mumbled back.
“Shoes? What do you mean?”
“You’ll see,” I said. “They’re here somewhere.”
Frustrated, I stopped a security guard to ask. “This row, Block 4. Uhm, top level.” I walked to the spot the guard had pointed me to. Block 4, top level. No shoes. Instead, hair. Uncountable pounds of hair from women- mostly Jewish- who had it taken from them without a choice. Who lost part of their individuality by force. Because Jews did not count as human. I searched building after building, increasingly frustrated. Kicking myself for not simply asking before we’d walked in. 4:45 came. Time to walk to the train station. I never found my shoes. And Adi never got his answer.
We left Auschwitz I. Retraced our steps all the way to the train station, mostly in silence. Got on our train, one so old it looked like the Soviets had built it just a few years after the war. Sat on the hot, leather benches. Glanced at each other. I laid my head against the window as the train rumbled to life and left the station. Slept for an hour. Gazed, still lost in my thoughts, at the passing countryside until we arrived back in Krakow. I breathed the air of freedom.
This post is dedicated to the memory of the 6,000,000 Jews and 6,000,000 other marginalized people whose lives were ended, destroyed, or turned upside down by six years of Nazi rule. For those who did not get the chance to live a life of freedom, to breathe the fresh, clear air of a warm sunny day. Z”l, may their memories be a blessing.
"First They Came" – Pastor Martin Niemöller
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.